I drove six generations of Toyota Land Cruisers, and it was everything I hoped it would be

We spend a day in the mountains driving the most capable vehicles ever made

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — I grew up in a “Big Three” family. My grandfather retired after a long career with Chrysler, my uncles worked for GM at the Ren Cen, and my dad and brother occupy cubicles at Ford. Once I turned 16 and my friends started driving, my dad made a rule: “No non-Fords in the driveway”. He was joking, but with a stern look. My friends started parking on the street.

So it was such a surprise to him, and, if I’m being honest, to myself, that I became such a fan of the Toyota Land Cruiser. I spotted my first FJ40 in the wild in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, some years back. It was pristine, parked next to an equally gorgeous Land Rover Defender, and something clicked, I needed to know more. 

Since then I’ve been fortunate enough to be around all kinds of Land Cruisers, even off-roading in New Zealand in one, through picturesque canyons straight out of "Lord of the Rings," literally. And when the chance came in 2017 to drive a 70 Series in Iceland, I jumped at it. Then a week before the trip, I got an email:

Hi Christopher,

"We unfortunately lost the Land Cruiser you booked in a car accident these days. Luckily it was just the car and nobody got injured.”

I was heartbroken. Instead of spending a week camping in a rooftop tent on one of my “holy grail” vehicles, Associate Producer Alex Malburg and I were relegated to a rundown front-wheel-drive Renault Trafic camper van. It broke down after two days, a premature end to what was supposed to be an epic trip. 

That disappointment only fueled my Land Cruiser obsession further. So when the opportunity came recently to drive not just the 2020 Land Cruiser Heritage Edition, but a host of vintage Cruisers, I had to be there. 

The morning of the drive, the fleet of vehicles that awaited us got me as excited as I have ever been on a snowy Christmas morning. In the company of some 2020 Heritage Editions were five vintage SUVs from the Land Cruiser Heritage Museum’s collection — a 1977 FJ40, a 1977 FJ55, a 1984 FJ60, a 1991 FJ80, and a 2004 UZJ100. There was also a not-vintage 2019 200 Series. 

If you want to read my review of the 2020 Land Cruiser Heritage Edition, check out our first drive. But if you’ve ever wondered what a 1991 FJ80 smells like, you’ve come to the right place. 

 

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Vintage Land Cruisers
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2019 URJ200 Land Cruiser 

I drove these Cruisers in reverse chronological order, so here is where we start. The 200 Series is the current U.S.-market Land Cruiser since 2008. Under the hood is a naturally aspirated 5.7-liter fuel injected V8 that makes 381 horsepower and 401 pound-feet of torque. Compared to every other version, it's the most luxurious. It is also the heaviest, at over 5,800 pounds. 

The 200 Series has everything you’d need in a luxury SUV: heated seats and steering wheel, power everything, USB ports, high-end sound system, leather, responsive infotainment system, and most of all, a quiet, comfortable ride. It floats over bumps with ease, the eight-speed transmission shifts unnoticeably. The steering is a bit light, and the 200 Series feels big on the road, because it is. If you take this vehicle off-road, make sure it’s not down narrow forestry trails, unless you don’t mind pinstripes. 

The off-road course where we drove this was a bit more aggressive than the one the museum vehicles tackled, but the Rubicon Trail it was not. The 200 Series tackled loose rock with ease, though a handful of times the running boards (something the Heritage Edition does away with) scraped. 

Most owners will never take the 200 Series off-road, but this is a Land Cruiser in every sense, and there’s a reason it won the Dakar Rally's production car category. It’s a true off-road vehicle. 

 

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2004 UZJ100 Land Cruiser

Of all the vehicles at this event, the 100 Series is the one I know best. It's first in line to be my next vehicle purchase, and I have driven a handful of 100 Series Cruisers and its LX470 cousin. This was a near-perfect example, one I would gladly fork over money for, and the only other Cruiser at the event that had a trustworthy odometer, which read just north of 140,000 miles. 

The 100 Series was offered in the United States from 1998-2007, though it did not remain unchanged in that time. The 1998 model was the first Land Cruiser to come with a V8 and the first with an independent front suspension. The 1999 model introduced traction control, 2003 came with a new five-speed transmission, and in 2006 the Land Cruiser got a bump from 235 to 275 horsepower. 

This SUV was nearly 15 years old but didn’t feel it, provided you didn’t need to use the navigation system. The leather seats were more broken-in than worn, and everything from the heated seats to the power-adjustable steering wheel worked. It even smelled new-ish. 

On the road it handled better than any 100 Series I’ve driven. The steering was comparable to the 200 Series, light but connected. The dirt road that served as an off-road course was easily driven over, and at 7,700 feet of elevation, the 4.7L V8 still had plenty of power to move what is quite a large SUV. 

Looks-wise, the 100 Series is one of my favorites. The white and gold colorway isn’t my first choice (as I write this, there is a purple Cruiser parked nearby that is calling to me). But it’s definitely one I’d be happy with. 

 

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1991 FJ80 Land Cruiser

Until now, the oldest Toyota I had driven is Senior Editor Alex Kierstein’s 1997 Tacoma. As I opened the door of this 1991 80 Series, I was hit with a smell and texture that immediately reminded me of that truck. But first, let’s discuss looks. I have a hard time ranking which Land Cruiser looks best. To me everything ranks behind the FJ40 and ahead of the FJ55, but the 80 Series is a good one. This example had the misfortune of gold-beige paint, but everything else — the squared-off headlights, the “Toyota” script in the grille, the “Land Cruiser” mud flaps, and the 4WD badging on the rear — was perfect. 

The interior was a mix of beige fabric and brown-and-black plastic. The steering wheel was thinner, though not as wispy as some of its predecessors. It was beautifully simple too, with the words “Land Cruiser” featured in the middle above a white horn symbol. The seat reminded me of my grandfather’s recliner, a comfortable, broken-in but well-built piece of furniture. And the smell I mentioned above was similar to the pages of an old book. The brown floor mats looked hardly ever used. 

The 80 Series was the last Land Cruiser in the United States (1990-1997) with a six-cylinder engine, this one a 4.0-liter inline with 155 horsepower and 220 lb-ft of torque. It was also the last automatic I would drive in this trip back through time. 

 

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1984 FJ60 Land Cruiser

The FJ60 (1980-1990 in the United States) was a sight to behold. This is the era you see bouncing around Boulder, Colorado, rusted almost beyond recognition. Yet this museum piece looked like it had been made last year. With the circular headlights for which the Land Cruiser is known, it stood out alongside the FJ40 as the best-looking, and the one I was most excited to drive. The light blue exterior and blue striped interior screamed 1980s, and the old-school “Land Cruiser” script was everywhere — the steering wheel, exterior, mud flaps, license plate frame, I couldn’t get enough. Though it looked mint, this was the first Cruiser that felt its age. The steering felt a bit loose, even when parked. I pressed the clutch and turned the ignition, and the inline six came to life. Didn’t roar, didn’t fire up, just started. 

The clutch was easy to use, easier than I anticipated. At 135 horsepower brand new and at sea level, the 60 Series was underpowered. At 35 years old and 7,700 feet of elevation, the real-world horsepower might've been in double digits. As the FJ60 slowly climbed the damp mountain road, my excitement waned. The steering was as vague as steering can get, and the truck struggled to pull its own weight and that of its two passengers, vibrating and making sounds that raised eyebrows. 

In the end, the 60 Series made it to the top of the mountain road, where it made for some fantastic photos, but not the driving experience I was hoping for. 

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  • Image Credit: Toyota
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  • Image Credit: Toyota

1977 FJ55 Land Cruiser

The FJ55 is undoubtedly the worst looking Land Cruiser ever made, nicknamed the “Iron Pig.” Even the awesome green and white paint job isn’t enough to overcome whatever it is you’d call that grille. The two-tone theme continues inside. Covering the front bench is impeccably maintained black leather, with black floor, steering wheel, dashboard and lower door panels. The rest of the doors and the headliner are white. 

As my driving partner finished his go at the dirt road and I slid over to the driver’s side, a grin grew on my face. I love bench seats. The shifter was missing any kind of pattern, so I took my best guess at first gear, and we headed off. Maybe it was because the FJ55 is lighter than the FJ60, or because it was in better condition, but I much preferred the 55 to the 60. Available 1968-1979 in the United States, the FJ55 shared the same 135 horsepower engine as the 40 and 60. The FJ55 was not fast, but it was enough. The steering wheel felt much more accurate, and the leather wrapping reminded me of old golf clubs. 

It bounced along the trail with the ease and comfort of the 80 series. The smell of exhaust never quite left the cabin, as the rear window was stuck open with a 2-inch gap at the top. Such is life with a 42-year-old truck. 

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  • Image Credit: Christopher McGraw
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  • Image Credit: Toyota
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1977 FJ40 Land Cruiser

Finally, the moment I'd been waiting for since that day in Jackson Hole. It was time to drive the FJ40. But as I looked in the rearview mirror, one of the resort SUVs was right behind me, unwilling to drive around. Momentarily flustered, I quickly released the clutch. The FJ40 shuddered and stalled. Not exactly how I’d imagined my first moments behind the wheel of a 40 Series. 

I composed myself, turned the ignition and, this time, quickly sped off. The 40 Series is quite a bit lighter than the FJ55 or FJ60, so it feels peppy. I wouldn’t say it's quick or fast, but it chugs along at a pace that doesn’t disappoint. Up front there are two bucket seats in black leather. The seatbelt clips feature old-school Toyota script, the same found in the FJ55 of the same year. 

On the exterior, the sideview mirrors seem like an afterthought, unpainted and bolted onto each door. A spare tire is attached to the rear door. That door’s handle required a clockwise turn to open. At some point I’m sure this task was smooth, but 42 years had been rough on this handle, and it took a bit of effort. Inside the rear were two facing jump seats. Aside from the driver’s seat, this was the place to be. 

The FJ40 was loud, bumpy, and slightly uncomfortable.

Everything I hoped it would be.


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